Unless you're a professional athlete, chances are you're not getting a balanced workout during your workday. Whether you're slaving away at a desk, making rounds, or waiting tables, you're likely straining some muscles while ignoring others, leaving your body feeling stiff, sore, and physically exhausted. Deadlines and pressure from bosses don't help matters, either.
"When you get stressed, you often hold your breath, which leads to holding your muscles. It feels like you're wearing a straitjacket," explains Elaine Petrone, a stress- and pain-management expert and creator of the "Stop the Back Pain" DVD.
You can stretch out the stress, though, with a little time and effort. "By pairing mindful stretches with deep breathing, you'll make lasting, positive changes to the way your body works, looks, and feels," says Petrone, who helped us develop this rejuvenating routine. Done for 15 to 20 minutes, three times a week, it paves the way to a calmer, less achy, and more energized you.
What it does: Stretches the chest and upper-back muscles, improves posture.
How to do it: Sit tall in a chair. Bend elbows and interlace your hands behind your head. Tilt your head back slightly and let the weight of your head rest in your hands. Lift your spine and chest up toward the ceiling. If it's comfortable, arch the uppermost portion of your spine slightly back, but keep your focus on lifting up the chest. Stay for up to one minute, breathing deeply and exhaling with an "s" sound.
What it does: Relieves lower-back aches and releases overworked back muscles, opens hip joints and helps ease sciatic pain, strengthens abdominals and inner thighs.
How to do it: Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, knees soft. Start to bend forward, hinging at the hips and pressing your palms into your upper thighs; reach your sit bones back (your butt will stick out a bit) to help extend your spine. Continue forward, draping your torso down toward your legs; let your head and arms dangle. Stay for two to three minutes, exhaling with an "s" sound on each breath, then roll up one vertebra at a time.
What it does: Releases tension from the jaw, neck, and shoulders; deepens breathing.
How to do it: Sit tall in a chair. Inhale deply; as you exhale, make a "ha" sound, gradually opening your mouth as far as you can without straining your jaw muscles. Let gravity do most of the work. Close your mouth as you inhale and repeat eight to 10 times, opening your mouth wider while using less muscular effort each time.
Now focus on the neck. Still sitting tall, drop your chin toward your chest and take several breaths. Then tilt your head back and look up at the ceiling for several breaths. Bring your head back to the center, inhale, and then turn and look to the right as you exhale. Pause for an inhale, then exhale as you slowly rotate your head to look left. Inhale, then exhale as you rotate your head to the right. Continue until you've looked right and left five times each.
What it does: Gets rid of shoulder and neck tension, helps lift the shoulder blades and collar bones up off the rib cage for better posture.
How to do it: Stand or sit with your spine tall. Inhale, then exhale deeply while making an "s" sound. As you inhale for a count of three, slowly lift your shoulders up toward your ears. Exhale with an "s" sound to a count of three as you roll your shoulders back, and finally lower them down as you inhale to a count of three. Repeat five times.
What it does: Opens the chest and sides of the torso, releases stiffness from the back and neck, tones core muscles and lengthens the spine, creates more space in the abdomen.
How to do it: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and arms by your sides. Slowly reach your right arm out to the side and up over your head (left arm stays by your side). Keep the neck long and your right shoulder blade down and back. Now bend sideways to the left and hold for three breaths, making an "s" sound on the exhale. Return to vertical, reaching your right arm out to the side and back down. Repeat with the left arm. Now slowly reach both arms out to the sides and up over your head, again keeping your neck long and shoulder blades down and back. Reach your feet and legs down into the floor as your fingers and arms stretch up. Stay for five breaths, making an "s" sound on the exhale, and release.
What it does: Opens the hips, relieves tension in the lower back, awakens the muscles in your ankles and feet, stretches the hamstrings.
How to do it: Lying on the floor with both legs straight, hug one knee into your chest, drawing it in slowly and wrapping your arms around your shin. Breathe, exhaling with an "s" sound, for one to two minutes. Now flex the foot of your bent leg, hold it for 10 to 15 seconds, and release it back to a neutral position. Flex and release five times, then slowly lower the leg back down. Repeat on the other leg.